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History of Pandemics
Posted by Emily Pazel

When the most recent pandemic began, roughly two years ago, it came as a pretty big shock to some as the world began to change. It seemed as though a Hollywood movie had become reality as the world was asked to change their way of life to get through a global pandemic. Many were asked to stay home, others were deemed “essential workers” and continued to work in person. Most classrooms and schools became a virtual learning center, and everyone was asked to “socially distance”, in an attempt to help slow the spread of the virus.

If you fast forward a few years to the present time, things are better than they were during the height of the pandemic, but we are not fully back to how things used to be. And, it’s believed that things may never get back to normal for a while, especially if you work in the healthcare industry where masks and other precautions are most likely to become the new norm. As things get back to normal, however, it’s interesting to see how the pandemic has shaped our way of life and how some things may never go back to the way it was before.

Although it seems like we have lived through some of the worst times, it has not been one of the first times the world has seen a pandemic. However, with the advancement in today’s modern world and global transportation, it has made it more difficult to keep viruses and illnesses at bay. So, what did past pandemics look like? Were they tougher to fight without modern medicine? And in what ways did we learn from them?

Pandemics of the Past

As soon as an epidemic or an outbreak of an illness or disease crosses a country’s boundaries, by definition, it becomes a pandemic. And, according to history.com, “Communicable diseases existed during humankind’s hunter-gatherer days, but the shift to agrarian life 10,000 years ago created communities that made epidemics more possible.” Some of those first epidemics included malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza, smallpox and others.

As history.com recalls, the more civilized humans became the more likely pandemics were to happen, especially when you consider how fast cities were built, how trading goods became a part of the world and as countries have gone to war with one another. Here is glimpse of some of the past pandemics:

  • 430 BC Athens: During the Peloponnesian War, the earliest recorded pandemic happened. From Libya, Ethiopia and Egypt, the disease crossed the Athenian walls as the Spartans laid siege and around two-thirds of the population died. Symptoms from this disease, which may have been typhoid fever, included fever, thirst, bloody throat and tongue, red skin and lesions. It was also believed that this weakened the Athenians significantly and was a big factor in their defeat by the Spartans.
  • 165 AD Antonine Plague: Beginning with the Hun Dynasty, the Antonine Plague was possibly an early version of smallpox that affected the Germans, who then passed it to the Romans and spread it through the Roman Empire. The symptoms included fever, sore throat, diarrhea and occasionally, pus-filled sores; this plague continued until around 180 AD and claimed the life of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • 11th Century Leprosy: During the Middle Ages, leprosy grew into a pandemic in Europe, which resulted in several leprosy-focused hospitals to accommodate the vast number of victims. Leprosy is a slow-developing bacterial disease that causes sores and deformities, which back then, was believed to be a punishment from God that ran in families. Interestingly enough, it still afflicts tens of thousands of people a year and can be fatal if not treated with antibiotics.
  • 1350 The Black Death: The Black Death is responsible for the death of one-third of the world’s population, which is the second largest outbreak of the bubonic plague. It started in Asia and moved west as caravans traveled over the countryside. It spread throughout Europe rapidly and caused dead bodies to become so prevalent that many remained rotting on the ground and created a constant stench in cities.
  • 1492 The Columbian Exchange: As the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean, diseases such as smallpox, measles and the bubonic plague passed from the Europeans to the natives in the area. In fact, these diseases, over time, wiped out nearly 90 percent of the population of indigenous people.
  • 1665 The Great Plague of London: The bubonic plague struck again in London, leading to the deaths of nearly 20 percent of its population. The worst of the outbreak tapered off in the fall of 1666, which is around the same time as another destructive event – the Great Fire of London.
  • 1889 Russian Flu: This is the first significant flu pandemic to take place, which began in Siberia and Kazakhstan, then traveled to Moscow and made its way to Finland and then Poland, where it swept across the rest of Europe. By the following year, it had crossed the ocean into North America and Africa, and by the end of 1890, 360,000 had died.
  • 1918 Spanish Flu: The Spanish Flu began in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia and swiftly made its way to the rest of the world. It got its name when wire service reports of a flu outbreak in Madrid in the spring of 1918, which led to it being called the “Spanish flu”. By October of that same year, hundreds of thousands of Americans died and body storage scarcity hit crisis levels.
  • 1981 HIV/AIDS: It was first identified in 1981 and known as AIDS; it destroys a person’s immune system, resulting in eventual death by diseases that the body would usually fight off. Although getting HIV/AIDS is still possible today, it’s a lot less common and there have been successful advancements on recovery and healing.
  • 2003 SARS: Known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), it was first identified in 2003 after several months of cases; it is believed to have started with bats, spread to cats and then to humans in China. It later moved to 26 other countries, infecting 8,096 people and around 774 deaths.
  • 2019 COVID-19: In March 2020, the World Health Organization officially announced COVID-19 as a global pandemic after quickly spreading through 114 countries in three months and infecting over 118,000 people. As of December 2021, the confirmed US COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 800,000, and continues to cause sporadic outbreaks even still.

Although this pandemic list is large, it is not all of them. And, history is likely to repeat itself in the future with more to come. However, with every pandemic that has hit and affected people, more knowledge, research and ways of getting through them or helping prevent them have surfaced. In fact, when SARS hit in 2003, global health professionals took it as a wake up call to improve outbreak responses and lessons were used to keep diseases like H1N1, Ebola and Zika under control.

So while we continue to dredge through this ongoing pandemic, it’s good to know that health professionals are learning all that they can about how viruses spread, how they infect people and ways to prevent it or help those who get sick. As we continue through this pandemic, it will help us in the future to be better prepared for more diseases and illnesses that will come.